New Faculty Snapshot: Cheryl Reed

By Carol Boll

February 28, 2018
This is a photo of Cheryl Reed
Cheryl Reed

01 You were a Fulbright Scholar teaching investigative reporting in Ukraine, a young democracy where the principle “freedom of the press” has yet to fully take hold. What did you learn from that experience? And are there any lessons for the U.S., especially given the polarized, even hostile, attitudes in some quarters toward U.S. media today? 

My experience in Ukraine was rich and engaging. I spent 10 months teaching the same graduate student cohort. At the beginning they told me they had no interest in becoming investigative reporters or war correspondent—positions considered to be the eminence of American journalism—because both were especially dangerous in Ukraine. There have been more than 60 journalists killed in Ukraine since the country received independence in 1991.

As our academic year progress, some students developed an interest in these specialties. I came to understand better that practicing journalism in Ukraine and other Eastern European countries involved more factors than whether a person has a passion for justice. What I really respected in the Ukrainian people is their fierce determination to govern themselves, despite all the corruption and interference from Russia, including the war with Russian-backed separatists now in its fourth year. Most television stations in Ukraine are owned by oligarchs who use the media for their own agendas. Ukrainians are pretty skeptical of what they read and watch. Americans would do well to really be more scrupulous in what forms of media they participate in and evaluate the source’s credibility.

02 What made you decide to leave an award-winning career as a journalist and go into academia? And why Syracuse? 

I decided to leave journalism when my day was dominated by layoff meetings instead of story meetings. I also had held several positions within the newsroom—reporter, editor, investigative reporter, crime reporter, books editor, editorial page editor etc.—and I wanted to try new challenges. Being a journalist was a 60-hour a week job, and there was little time to explore other interests. I decided to leave daily journalism to pursue those creative interests. But I continued to work in some form of journalism. It just wasn’t a daily newspaper. I ran a literary magazine, then a science magazine.

While I pursued my own writing projects, I taught in various English departments. But when I became a student newspaper advisor and found myself working in a traditional newsroom again, I realized how much I missed that energy of working on deadline and with a team of passionate reporters. But I realized doing real journalism on a college campus wasn’t possible at most universities. I knew that to teach the kind of reporting I cared about—investigative reporting—I would need to be at an institution that supported that kind of work. I came to Syracuse because I was impressed with its reputation. I wanted to go to a highly ranked journalism school. 

03 What do you consider to be the most important lesson for aspiring journalists today? And why?

To be an excellent reporter today or any day, you must have an exorbitant curiosity. You must constantly be asking questions and wondering how things work and why people behave as they do. You have to have a deep and abiding passion for justice. And you can’t be afraid to hold people in positions of power accountable. Some people’s definition of good journalism would not involve all those things, but I believe if you’re going to call yourself a journalist you shouldn’t just be engaged in simply recording what people say. That’s a stenographer. A journalist questions the why and how and doesn’t stop until they find out the answers. 

04 I understand you also have written a novel, "Poison Girls." Was it difficult to transition from nonfiction reporting to writing a novel? What prompted you to write it?

I wrote “Poison Girls,” which came out last September, over the course of a dozen years. It is based on a true story about girls I covered as a reporter who were secretly experimenting with drugs. It was a story that had eaten at my psyche for a long time. I spent 12 years writing, rewriting and rewriting the book. There wasn’t a week during that time when I wasn’t actively engaged in revising the book. The book really taught me how to write fiction. It was, however, my second book. My first book, “Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns,” came out a decade earlier and chronicled my four years traversing the country living off and on with nuns, asking “inappropriate” questions and getting sent to the chapel to pray.

Read Cheryl Reed's article, "Why I turned to fiction to write about opioids," in the Columbia Journalism Review>>